My most recent trip to Houthi-held Sanaa in was equally hard to arrange. A Hadi government visa is only one step in planning my trip to Aden.
Before travelling, I inform UAE officials of my trip and obtain approval from the UAE-allied Yemeni security forces that control the airport and most of the city. My next challenge is to book a flight on Yemenia, the only airline flying there. With just one or two flights a day from either Cairo or Amman, competition for the seats is intense. Several Yemeni friends trying to reach Aden around the same time are told the flights are all booked, and some think they might have to pay bribes to jump the queue.
In my case, a contact in Aden is able to do the labour-intensive work of constant personal follow-up at the Yemenia offices. What choice do I have? When I board the Yemenia plane in Cairo at the end of February, I am surprised to see that one third of the seats are empty. I suspect that potential travellers are deterred by the exorbitant price for anything less than emergency occasions. Many of my fellow passengers are returning home after medical treatment abroad. I see one young man I had previously met, who had taken a relative to India for treatment of a medical problem that could not be resolved in Yemen.
It was too late. He died. The family is coming home to mourn his passing away with other relatives and friends. We take off for Aden five hours late, typical for Yemenia flights from Cairo, which are scheduled to depart very early each morning. My nerves are jangling. The plane is in shocking disrepair. All the seats are at different levels, and mine is falling off its mountings.
No staff member bothers to give the usual safety instructions. The aircraft lands intact and I emerge to find an Aden transformed. I have not been here since January , a few months before the Saudi-led intervention. Back then, southerners were preparing to repulse the coming Houthi offensive, but as yet there had been no combat. Now there are bombed buildings in and around the airport and a sense of militarisation everywhere. A new military-style barrier made of large sand-filled canvas bags is under construction around the airport perimeter.
The terminal is still in one piece, and passport control is open, if sparsely manned given the limited flights. Because the terminal is closed to car traffic for security reasons, there is nobody outside to meet me. A friend had arranged entry, but it was denied at the last minute. So we walk through the large, empty car park outside. My fellow passengers and I carry our bags to the entrance checkpoint, where we cross into a narrow, congested two-lane street that now functions as the access road to the airport.
As painstakingly arranged, a friend of a friend is loyally waiting. He picks me up and drives me to where I will stay. I am to spend the first part of my eight days in Aden in the Bouraiqa district, on an island-like peninsula 15km west of the main city, itself also almost an island in the Gulf of Aden. On the way to Bouraiqa, we pass through a stretch of desert wasteland where security forces from the UAE have set up a base. This is my only sighting of Emirati troops.
The UAE wields great authority in Aden, but its soldiers mostly seem to stay hunkered down in their compound. Incongruously, there are also shiny new billboards along the causeway. Another displays the leader of the opposing political bloc, President Hadi. They are made up of southerners allied with Zubaydi and the STC. The Hadi government calls them illegitimate militias on the UAE payroll. It was the Emiratis who led the military campaign that ousted the Houthis from Aden.
And they support and pay the security belt forces, in part because they know that many in the city perceive Hadi, who is aligned more closely with the Saudis, as corrupt and ineffectual. Both the UAE and its southern Yemeni allies view Islah with deep suspicion and associate the group with political radicalism and violence. Many southerners in Aden resent Hadi and Islah, and the UAE-aligned local groups have the military advantage on the ground. There is also a regional component to the raging intra-southern feuds.
There is a perception that the security belt forces in Aden draw too heavily from these areas and that the STC, whose membership is regionally diverse, under-represents Aden. Others vehemently deny the importance of regionalism. While current divisions are not carbon copies of the past — in which groups from the current governorates of Dalia and Lahj fought a brutal ten-day civil war against Abyan and Shebwa in — history does appear to have an echo.
The friction between the UAE and Hadi camps erupted into open clashes in January that lasted two or three days before the Emiratis and Saudis stepped in to impose a ceasefire, which has remained fragile and tense. If the Emiratis wish to gain more traction, they need to communicate better what their military and political goals and capacities are. The January truce has held, but there has been no political reconciliation.
Instead there is Balkanisation and political paralysis. In parts of the city, for instance in the vicinity of the Interior Ministry, pro-Hadi forces hold sway. Elsewhere, STC-allied forces are in charge. What surprises me most, however, are the guns. In northern Yemen, especially in rural areas, guns are ubiquitous, but that was never the case in Aden.
Not under British colonial rule, not under the communists who ruled the South when it was an independent state until , and not in unified Yemen under the regime of President Saleh.
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Today, guns are everywhere, carried by the security forces in pickup trucks with heavy machine guns mounted on the back — some of them clearly dressed in uniforms, others in a confusing mix of tribal and military garb — and by young men on motorbikes, some of whom may be part of the divided security services, others not. Another danger feeds underlying tensions. Since , unknown assailants have assassinated over twenty clerics and preachers, many of them associated with the Sunni Islamist party, Islah. All of this violence is targeted, of course, but I do not want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This makes Aden quite unlike Sanaa, which the Houthis run as a relatively secure police state. Because of the insecurity, I do not move around much. Most of my contacts and friends come to see me where I am staying in Bouraiqa, with a family of business people who have a fine villa overlooking a lovely small fishing bay. When I do go out, I always wear the abaya and niqab — a long black robe and a full-face veil. That way, at checkpoints and in public, I draw less attention. Moving around town, I am shocked by the scale of war damage in Aden.
The main road into the city from the north, where the Houthis advanced and retreated, I am told looks like east Aleppo. In Aden, almost every large hotel is destroyed. On past visits I would stay at the Mercure Hotel, right on the beach. The Mercure is now ripped open, its entire lobby exposed by an airstrike aimed at the Houthis, who were occupying the building at the time. The nearby Aden Hotel was destroyed in Saudi coalition airstrikes. ISIS bombed a third hotel built by Saleh.
Many parts of the city are in ruins. There has been a lot of looting. Amid the destruction, there is still plenty of life. Fishermen are out in the bay off Bouraiqa. At lunchtime, the fruit and vegetable markets are packed. A few state institutions have relocated to Aden, bringing life to a city that was sleepy and neglected under Saleh. Here, unlike in Sanaa, state employees, teachers, street cleaners and medical workers are, for the most part, being paid.
Most noticeable are the security belt forces members in the markets buying leafy bunches of qat , a mildly narcotic plant chewed by many Yemenis. The UAE is paying them well and on time. I meet all sorts of people: civilians and security personnel, backed by either the UAE or President Hadi; government officials and other politicians; Salafis and secularists; men and women; doctors, journalists and NGO activists. Everyone I talk to brings up how the city feels paralysed, especially by the political impasse between Hadi and the UAE-backed forces, a national struggle complicated by a regional intervention layered on top of local feuding.
He is barricaded behind concrete walls in the area policed by pro-Hadi fighters. The local government is barely functioning. The last Hadi-appointed governor never effectively took up his post or stayed in the city longer than a few months. The city is held hostage by an interconnected tug of war between, on the one hand, Hadi government supporters and their STC opponents and, on the other, between competing national and local government interests, with all seeking control over resources and none effectively governing.
The lack of governance is evident everywhere. A friend living near the airport complained to me that nothing could be done when someone started a construction project that cut a main local sewage pipe, and now sewage is spilling into the street. A businessman laments how men with guns occupy buildings that do not belong to them and evict the rightful owners. The businessman is asking the courts for help, and is being told he can file suit and win, but that no one will enforce the verdict.
No one can do anything about the situation. Traditional Adeni families, many of them in business, long felt neglected or abused by northerners during the Saleh years and by their southern rural compatriots, who dominated politically during the pre socialist period. They say history is repeating itself as fighters from the countryside are struggling with each other for power in Aden now that the Houthis have been evicted.
The younger Adeni generation, many of whom took up arms against the Houthis, remain armed. Some are aligned with the STC, others with Hadi, and others with neither side.
There is plenty of anger and frustration with outside powers as well. I arrange to meet a large group of educated, professional women. These are lawyers and businesswomen, and they feel helpless, pawns in a game played by the Saudis, Emiratis, Americans and British. They say their lives are in ruins because of the war against the Houthis but also and especially because of continued infighting in the south. They are holding their breath, wondering if the next phase is going to be even worse. These women are my friends. I always see them when I visit.
They tell me what is going on in society, which I do not learn about in structured interviews, and that helps me contextualise local politics. I hear details about corruption that I would not know otherwise. My friends joke that they have to get together because without some kind of normalcy they would go crazy.
One woman says she had a medical problem that was misdiagnosed in Aden. She underwent unnecessary surgery, and her condition got worse and worse. She only received proper care after she managed at last to travel to India, a difficult journey given the expense and limited flights. Thanks to coalition spending, the economic situation in Aden is not as dire as I expected, and is better than in Sanaa.
Yes, people are relieved that the Houthis were driven out. Yes, there is running water sometimes, unlike in many other towns in Yemen. When I am there, electricity is working, even as everyone worries that the intense summer heat will overwhelm the system. But in general, nothing is functioning properly.
Aden feels neglected. Two and a half years after the last Houthis left, little reconstruction has started. No foreign diplomatic missions are operating. The Adenis are starting to resent the inattention, from the UAE in particular, which residents say is overly focused on narrow security concerns, and especially counter-terrorism. I heard a lot of this talk even from people who are not on the side of the Hadi government. After staying in Bouraiqa, I move to Crater, the bowl of an ancient volcano in which nestles the old downtown centre of Aden.
He is at the forefront of counter-terrorism efforts. I decline to go to his headquarters, since he has been a target of assassination attempts. Going to his seafront home in the Tawahi district, out on its own peninsula, is the one time I get really nervous. Shalal sees me partly because I first met him a decade ago when he was a fugitive southern rebel hiding from the Saleh government.
Back in , he talked about the inevitability of the south splitting off from the north, and now here he is, in charge of a de facto autonomous southern force backed by the UAE. He does not seem triumphant. Southerners like Shalal still want their own country, but they have not declared an independent southern state at this point. They are still paying lip service to Hadi and sending fighters north to fight the Houthis. Both the army units aligned with the Hadi camp and the various security forces being built by the UAE in Aden are per cent southern.
With the exception of northern Hadramout province, there are no northerners with guns in the south. The south may be internally divided, but most factions say they want to build southern state institutions. This is the common narrative that unites them, even as they struggle for control over how to reach that goal. If there is anything I take away with me from Aden, it is a new awareness of this fundamental fault line. It goes deep. South Yemen was an independent socialist state from to Throughout the period after it unified with the North, southerners chafed at what they saw as northern domination.
Southern separatists fought and lost a brief war for independence in Southern separatist sentiment has grown since then, through the flawed post-Saleh transition plan, the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, the civil war and the Saudi-led intervention to reinstall Hadi. At the same time, the internal power struggles within the south are evident to all and are effectively becoming a war within a war.
It just does not make sense that the Houthis and the Hadi government are the only two actors that can negotiate a ceasefire or begin to solve the more complicated problems that led to the civil war in the first place. They both have a role, but so do an array of new actors on the ground, and also external parties. Heading back to the airport, I feel again it is absolutely essential to deal with Yemen as it is on the ground and to understand these local aspirations and new power structures.
My two dozen in-depth interviews have given me new ideas about how to improve the situation immediately. US sports. Rugby League. Movers List. Geoffrey Macnab. Tech news. Tech culture. News videos. Explainer videos. Sport videos. Money transfers. Health insurance. Money Deals. The Independent Books. Voucher Codes.
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